Feminism and Jewish Prayer

A variety of views on changing masculine bias in Jewish liturgy.

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The problem of masculine-biased language has been addressed on two levels. It has been relatively easy to reach a consensus on the need to change language referring to humanity. Resistance to the elimination of masculine imagery about God is much more pervasive, indicating the profound emotional impact of the language of prayer.

--Annette Daum was Director of the Department of Inter-religious Affairs of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Associate Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. Reprinted with permission from Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut. © Annette Daum, 1992, Jewish Publication Society.

Feminine Language for God Stresses Gender—But God is Genderless

Some feminists view the traditional Hebrew liturgy--and English translations such as Rabbi [Jules] Harlow's [in the book from which this article is taken]--as sexist. For them, the image of God as a male King, who sits on a throne and judges humanity, is alienating. Some of these feminists feel that adding feminine language--God as Queen, God as Mother--makes the concept of the divine inclusive, and this allows them to embrace Jewish prayer.

Other feminists, myself included, object to changing the Hebrew language that refers to God. The traditional Hebrew of the siddur [prayerbook] unites Jews everywhere. Although I, and other Jewish feminists, welcome changes in the English translations and though I welcome original prayers and new feminist rituals (alongside new understandings of Jewish women's roles), I believe that public, communal Hebrew prayer should remain largely fixed.

As Rabbi Harlow argues, traditional Hebrew prayer, even today, is shared by Jews in all countries of the world. I pray with greatest intensity when the words are familiar and link me to earlier generations and to Jews in Israel and elsewhere.

I believe, too, that traditional conceptions of God include attributes that are neither masculine nor feminine; both women and men are wise, strong, merciful. For me, God transcends gender. I am uncomfortable with feminist rewriting of Hebrew language that addresses or refers to God. While changing references to the Jewish people, both to our ancestors and to Jews today, is--for me--a necessary change, changing the way we refer to God is, in my mind, not authentically Jewish. The Bible describes God using physical terms with masculine gender: Melekh or King, Adon or Lord. Yet, as Rabbi Harlow points out, the Bible also uses feminine imagery in referring to God.

None of these descriptions or images of God in the Bible imply God is either masculine or feminine. Some people would assign specific attributes to masculine or feminine aspects of God, but such narrow definitions tend to create and reinforce stereotypes that are misleading because of God's unique and genderless nature. Tampering with the original Hebrew eliminates the nuances of the multi-dimensional meaning of God.

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